NASCAR & Auto Racing

Writer’s love affair with the Indianapolis 500 began with historic 1977 race

David J. Neal’s lifelong love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with Pole Day in 1977 . Neal will attend his 29th Indy 500 on Sunday.
David J. Neal’s lifelong love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with Pole Day in 1977 . Neal will attend his 29th Indy 500 on Sunday.

Sunday Indianapolis native David Neal will attend his 29th Indianapolis 500. He looks back on his first, the 1977 race that ended one of the most historic months of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Like many an Indianapolis resident at the time, I knew the landmark firsts already highlighting that May as I walked toward the gargantuan Northwest Vista stands framing Turn 4 for the 1977 Indianapolis 500. I knew Race Day, each year historic in its own way, carried the potential for tell-the-grandkids moments.

But, most of all, I knew this Race Day would mark one piece of personal history: my first Indianapolis 500.

I knew Disney World from Disneyland. I could tell you when each opened. To mention either in the breath of Race Day committed a blasphemy that would cause this 9-year-old’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I had been to the Olympics the previous summer. Now, I was going to Olympus.

There was no mystery to my fervor’s origins. I was a Hot Wheels/Johnny Lightning/Matchbox car-collecting Indianapolis kid when Al Unser drove Johnny Lightning-sponsored cars to wins in Indy 500 wins 1970 and 1971. I loved cars’ aesthetics and speed, I loved auto racing and was raised during an era when the biggest after-school news in May was that day’s top five practice speeds.

(If you were lucky and raised within a short drive of the track, a parent would be waiting for you after school to say, “Drop your books. We’re going out to catch the last couple of hours of practice.”)

The most thrilling drive on my first trip to the track, Day 3 of 1973 qualifying, turned out to be our eastward streak across 30th Street from the track, a funnel cloud in the rear-view mirror. But the speed and drama of my first Pole Day, 1975, with A.J. Foyt coming out late to snatch the pole from Gordon Johncock, indoctrinated me fully.

I decided right then: Pole Day was an annual need. Race Day was an annual want.

My poor mother. During the next two years, I’m quite sure the woman who yelped with glee as we watched Foyt’s pole-winning run from the pit fence wished my lengthy allergy list included Coyotes, Wildcats and Eagles.

“Why can’t we go to the race?” We don’t have tickets.

“Can’t we get tickets?” They’re sold out, except for the infield.

“Can’t we go into the infield?” You can’t see the race from there.

“Then, why do people go there?”

She didn’t help herself on 1977 Pole Day. Between she and a friend’s foot-dragging, I was sitting in a Toyota parked in the fire lane of a Standard supermarket while they finished getting chips and drinks, listening on WIBC to Tom Sneva turning the first two official 200 mph laps at the Speedway.

For a stat geek who practiced math by calculating four-lap averages and spent all winter anticipating seeing the 200 mph barrier officially broken, this counted as a stomach stomp.

(A bonding element between me and the best friend I would meet a decade later – his mother caused him to miss Sneva’s run, too.)

Eight days later, sitting in that same car, parked on Central Avenue after Mom and I spent a day at a Broad Ripple art fair, I was sighing with relief. WIBC’s final qualifying day’s wrapup said Janet Guthrie became the first female to qualify for the race.

Six days after that, same seat, same car, watching Mom pick up race tickets from a friend, Mark Batiste. I think they were his mother’s extra tickets.

The Pole Day fiasco in mind, I began planning Race Day with a seriousness that would have done Roger Penske proud.

We had three supermarkets within a short walk, but none opened until 9 a.m. on a Sunday. So, we would get food and drink the night before to minimize the chances of obstruction or delay. I wasn’t crazy about chicken, but it could be eaten cold, and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s original recipe breading lasted better into the next day than Church’s. Kentucky Fried, it was. My eating tastes would be subjugated to Race Day timing.

Via repetitive consumption of the 1976 program, bought on Pole Day the previous year, I knew Race Day’s order of events. We would get to our seats after the Parade of Bands. Macy’s, Rose Parade, Orange Bowl Parade, love the bands. This is Race Day. I didn’t want the bands.

So, after parking in a yard on 34th Street, Mom and I marched down Georgetown Road, one of the first Igloo Playmate coolers bumping our legs. Inside, store brand sodas and cold Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Right on Tag Heuer time, we settled into our Turn 4 seats, the bands already in the day’s past, “Back Home Again in Indiana,” balloons and “Gentlemen, start your engines” in our near future.

And, before us, the vastness of people. Even the Turn 3 stands, pockmarked with people on Pole Day, a solid mass of human energy surging with the collective anticipation of greatness.

Mom and I wondered how Guthrie’s presence would alter the words of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, who did for “Gentlemen, start your engines” what Michael Buffer did for “Let’s get ready to rumble.”

“In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis…gentlemen…start… youurEN-gines!”

Mom and I shared a smile at Hulman’s acknowledgement.

Then, the roar. Not of the engines, although we could hear them a quarter mile away on the front straight. The roar of Indianapolis Motor Speedway citizens ready for Race Day’s sensory bouillabaisse.

As the front row of Sneva, Bobby Unser and Al Unser crept into view around Turn 3, I began taking in the most beautiful sight in sports: the field of 33, 11 rows of 3, brashly boasting sponsors’ paid paint, giving you a good look before accelerating into impressionist darts until uninitiated eyes adjusted to the pace.

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The sleek beauty of the McLaren-Cosworths piloted by Team McLaren’s Johnny Rutherford and Penske Racing’s Mario Andretti (loved the red CAM2 colors) and Sneva. Ah, Pancho Carter’s No. 48 Jorgensen Steel Eagle had a broader front wing, more like a Coyote or Wildcat. As one who found the Eagles rather pedestrian, I liked the funkiness.

On Race Day, similarly painted cars from the same team carried the car version of colorful bows on black luggage. Billy Vukovich Jr.’s Foyt-owned car carried white on the front wing tips to differentiate his orange Coyote-Foyt from Foyt’s. Johnnie Parsons Jr., a Johncock teammate, had blue on his front wings.

We thought we saw Guthrie hold up a single digit out of her cockpit, a brief celebration of her barrier-breaker status. Or not – when I talked to Guthrie in 2007 for a story on the 30th anniversary of this race, she said she definitely didn’t hold a finger up, although maybe her hand came up for another reason.

At the start, we could see Al Unser dive into the lead as they disappeared into Turn 1. Then, that scintillating moment when the leader zips into view, the field in hot pursuit, curls around the turn and whips past. Oh, yes, I was home.

So immediately thrilled with all the drivers to track live rather than on radio, I minded only for a lap or so that my favorite driver, 1974 and 1976 winner Johnny Rutherford, dropped out first. We were bummed that Guthrie suffered engine problems from a few laps into the race.

After a yellow for the lone crash, occurring well out of our view, Johncock and heat took over the day (the smell of sunscreen always reminds me of the Speedway). For most of the race, his lead over Foyt kept him out of Foyt’s view. By standards of the pack-up rule era that began in 1979, most of the race was ehh, but I was captivated. Besides, I liked Johncock – very good driver and his cars always looked as cool as his name sounded.

Mark, sitting next to us, wore a well-paid smile. He had Johncock in a pool. His grin got more tense as Foyt closed to within a few seconds late in the race, but Johncock restored a safe-looking lead after the last round of pit stops. We watched him head down the front straight to complete lap 184.

Then, Johncock’s car farted a puff of smoke. We saw him pull down to the inside, then jerk left to the grass inside Turn 1. Speedway announcer Tom Carnegie thundered everybody’s shock, “What happened? What happened?” as Foyt zoomed past Johncock’s parked car.

Mark grimaced. I would have, too — I wasn’t a Foyt fan, unless he was running NASCAR — but I couldn’t help thinking, “Foyt’s in the lead! Foyt’s going to become the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and I’m here to see it! My first Indy 500 and the win people have been waiting for since he won his third the year I was born is going to happen right in front of me!”

And, then I remember the calm announcement, “Tom Sneva is now in second, 35 seconds behind” and thinking, “Sneva’s still in the race?” To this day, I don’t remember seeing the baby blue Norton Spirit between the first round of pit stops and a broken crankshaft shafting Johncock.

As Foyt came around on his last lap and his victory lap, the whole Speedway stood as they do for each winner, but the whistles, applause and hat waves owned a different feel: acknowledgment of an entire career, along with celebration and appreciation.

Tony Hulman, who shared a close relationship with Foyt, rode in the back of the pace car with Foyt on the traditional winner’s lap. He hadn’t done that before. He would never do that or give the start-your-engines command again.

The man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 when many declared both relics after World War II died the following October.

Sneva. Guthrie. Hulman. Foyt…for a kid who loves his history and racing, a pretty good Indianapolis 500 virgin voyage. And part of the reason he’ll be in the stands for No. 29 Sunday.

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